March 18, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Chuck Heater is hunting for better numbers and rankings from his Marshall defense in 2014.
So, as spring practice begins next week, the veteran Herd defensive coordinator is turning to a familiar Hunter.
One of the changes for a Marshall defense that was vastly improved in 2013 is returning D.J. Hunter to outside linebacker, where the rising redshirt junior was a Freshman All-America pick by The Sporting News in 2012.
Last season, the 6-foot, 202-pound Hunter was moved to strong safety under Heater, the Herd’s new coordinator. And after playing almost every defensive snap in the first seven games of the season, Hunter suffered concussion-like symptoms from a hit late in a last-second defeat at Middle Tennessee, then lost his starting job to true freshman Tiquan Lang.
Now, as spring practice opens March 25, Heater has Hunter back with the first unit at the strongside (sam) linebacker, and has moved rising sophomore Stefan Houston back inside (will) where he began last season – and where he’s No. 2 behind junior Evan McKelvey.
Meanwhile, senior Neville Hewitt -- last season’s starter on the weakside -- will miss spring drills after surgery on his neck. Heater said Hewitt had “irritation on a bulging nerve” in his neck. Missing this spring, that’s a big deal for us, but he’ll be back in the fall without a problem.”
As for Hunter, it’s a return to a position where he ranked third nationally among freshmen tacklers in 2012, with 102.
“He’s got a lot of things going for him,” Heater said. “He played outside ‘backer a couple of years ago (under former coordinator and LB coach Chris Rippon) and did a good job with it. We think moving him toward the line of scrimmage will help him, make him more a consistent, more productive player.
“He’s got enough skill set that we have to try to find a way to get him on the field, and we think this move will help him and help us. Part of this job is to try to get people in places where they can get onto the field, so that’s our intent with him and something he’s familiar with because he played two years ago.”
Heater said another goal on the personnel side this spring is getting last season’s starter at free safety – junior Taj Letman – on the field at strong safety, too.
The coordinator said spring drills will open with Letman at No. 2 behind both Lang (strong) and A.J. Leggett (free), who had four of the Herd’s 18 interceptions last season.
“I don’t have enough safeties here in the spring,” Heater said. “I’ve got three guys who have played football. Letman played at free, and I want to give him an opportunity to compete at strong as well. I think he’s a player who is getting better.”
Heater also has Corey Tindal, the Conference USA co-Freshman of the Year in 2013, listed No. 1 at one of the cornerback spots at well as at nickel. Fellow sophomore Michael Johnson figures to get plenty of work at both spots, too, and junior Keith Baxter – out injured last season – “can help us a lot if he can stay healthy,” Heater said.
“A year ago at this time we didn’t even know we’d have a defense, so we’ve come a long way in that regard, and so now we have some confidence,” Heater said. “The next step is for us to become -- every given Saturday -- the reason why we win.
“The offense is going to score its points, and if those guys score 44 (per game) again on average, we should be OK on most Saturdays. But we didn’t do that a couple of times, so that’s where the defense failed, so we’ve got to get things up to that standard. That’s the challenge for them.”
Meanwhile, with eight returning starters, Heater said he believes the 2014 defense should be improved from the 2013 unit that made tremendous strides.
“Oh, yeah,” Heater said when asked about whether he viewed the 2014 Herd defense as potentially superior to the solid 2013 group. “A year ago at this time we had a whole lot of unknowns. A lot. We didn’t know how good a lot of guys were.
“We didn’t know (defensive tackle and team MVP James) Rouse was the player he was, didn’t know about McKelvey, (cornerback Darryl) Roberts, newcomers like Hewitt and Corey Tindal, a bunch of guys, (end) Gary Thompson. Some guys showed up last season who were total, complete unknowns.
“Now, the challenge is to get those guys better, bring a few more guys along because we have to replace a few guys and keep growing and keep developing and become that team where our defense is consistent every Saturday and gives your team a chance to win every time you play.”
He has a particular challenge for his second Herd defense.
”The next step is for us to become a dominant defense,” Heater said. “You’re not really going to win – the way we think we’re capable of winning – until the defense can play every Saturday in a dominant fashion, regardless of what happens, regardless of turnovers or whether there are kicking game errors.
“And if we do that, we’re going to win, win a lot of games, win some because of the defense. That’s my challenge to them, that we take a step forward now.”
Heater’s defense had only 115 missed tackles in 14 games, reaching Coach Doc Holliday’s goal to average “under double figures.” The average was 8.2 per game. Only twice in 14 games did the Herd have more than 10 missed tackles (FAU 13, Middle Tennessee 12).
Heater said he has spent part of the winter crunching numbers not only to see where the Herd ranked defensively in major college football, but also where other teams that run uptempo spread offenses rank in defense.
“Scoring defense, rush defense and third-down defense are the big ones with me,” he said, “and ultimately it’s trying to keep people out of the end zone. We made progress in scoring defense. We were 32nd (22.9 points per game) after being second-to-last (ranked 123rd, 43.1 ppg in 2012).
“I looked at the top scoring defenses with fast tempo offenses – Oregon was 13th in scoring defense -- because there’s obviously a perception out that that you can’t play great defense if you run a high-tempo offense – because you’re on the field more. Well, Oregon certainly is a team that plays fast.
“Our scoring defense, per play was 19th in the country (.305 points, as only Northern Illinois and Missouri were on the field more than the Herd’s 1,053 plays). That’s better, but we’re 32nd (overall) in points per game, and that’s the only number that counts. This is what it is, end of the day, no matter what happens.
“No matter what offense you run, if you get in the top 10 in the country in scoring defense, you’re in great shape. (From Conference USA) North Texas did (No. 8, at 17.8 ppg), and they’re on their way. The top four were Florida State, Louisville, Michigan State and Alabama. There’s a reason why they were great teams.”
Heater said that although Marshall is his 12th coaching stop and he’s heading toward his 39th season on college sidelines, this is the first time he’s been part of a team that runs a fast tempo offense.
“I’m still trying to get my mind wrapped around what does it mean to a defense when an offense is tremendous like ours is and they play fast. Regardless, you’re back out there (on defense) a lot, and you play more plays.
“There’s no team in the top 10 in scoring defense that plays a high tempo offense. We were third in scoring defense among the teams with high tempo offenses. I’m trying to figure out just what does that mean. We played great third-down defense (33.6 percent conversion rate for opponents, 17th in FBS), and I think it’s huge. We were 13th in pass efficiency defense, and rush defense, and that’s where we weren’t as good at no. 57, but again, per play, it was 26th.
“Bottom line, it doesn’t really matter why you’re on the field, good, bad, indifferent. If the offense stinks, you’re on the field because they can’t stay on the field. Still, it’s the first time I’ve been around that kind of offense where you’re on the field a lot, or it seems like you’re on the field a lot.
“Sometimes it’s because you can’t get off the field yourself. We did have some bad third-down games. Middle Tennessee was one. At Ohio, we couldn’t get off the field. We weren’t near where we need to be in those games in third-down defense. There were games we were pretty good on third down, getting off the field, but we were still out there a lot.
“Whatever happens, you’ve got to find a way to go out there and keep the opposing team out of the end zone. At times we did a good job with that, but I think the next step for us is to become a dominant defense. That’s the challenge now.”